The freshman quarterback grabbed his helmet, darted onto the field -- passing, in the other direction, a struggling Gavin Hoffman -- and jumped directly into the huddle, never missing a beat.
The seniors on the team were not quite as sure. After all, this was serious.
The Penn football team was losing by a field goal to Bucknell in the third game of the 1999 season with two minutes left in the first half. Could a freshman, in his first collegiate appearance, really come in and march the team down the field in the two-minute drill?
The huddle was chaotic. "Yo, Mitch, you ready man? You ready for this?" the offense barked, waiting for a response, any response, from their new general.
Mike Mitchell looked up calmly, waited a few seconds for effect, and then spoke:
"Does a bear shit in the woods?"
That day, if only for a short while, he earned the respect of his elder teammates.
"They were just dying laughing," Mitchell recalled. "They thought it was the greatest thing ever."
Now this was his team. The first play -- and the first pass of his Penn career -- Mitchell connected with wide receiver Brandon Carson on a 15-yard curl.
Now the crowd started to get behind him. A few more completions, and the Quakers found themselves sitting pretty on the 10-yard line with just a few ticks left on the clock.
Now everyone believed in this rookie replacement, the second-stringer who subbed in for the big-time Northwestern transfer who had yet to find his touch.
There was time for just one more play, and Penn head coach Al Bagnoli called a timeout to confer with his young quarterback.
"He said, 'All right, whatever you do, don't force anything. Get a touchdown if it's there. If not, we can kick a field goal,'" Mitchell remembered. "I said, 'All right, Coach.' But to me, there was no way we weren't going to get a touchdown."
Mitchell was confident, even a little cocky, and hungry for that end zone. So when Bucknell brought a blitz from the left side and covered up his primary target, wide receiver Rob Milanese, on a flag pattern, the hotshot freshman QB did exactly what his coach told him not to and forced a pass over the middle to tight end Ben Zagorski.
That pass was intercepted, and the Quakers went on to lose by a touchdown.
"What was going so good just turned so bad," Mitchell said, grimacing. "I remember that like it was yesterday."
That was yesterday, back when Mitchell was a little-known backup quarterback.
Today, the Penn football team is his.
It's about the people really, because when you get to the core of things, what isn't?
That's the reason a self-admitted country bumpkin traveled nearly 1,000 miles to a school he had never heard of and to a city he can't wait to get out of.
That's the reason a two-sport high school star waited on the sidelines, quietly but confidently, for the better part of the three years behind one of the best quarterbacks in Penn history.
That's the reason Mitchell never entertained thoughts of transferring, even when his Wharton courseload seemed like more than he could handle.
It's because of guys like Chuck Priore, the former Penn offensive coordinator, who recruited Mitchell, wowing him with his gregarious nature and sturdy offensive playbook. (Priore has since moved on to become the head coach of the Trinity College football team, replaced by the well-respected Andy Coen).
Mitchell made just one official college visit, and the search was over.
"He wanted to make up his mind right after he got back from Penn," Mike's father, Van said. "I told him to wait a little while before making a decision. He waited two hours and said, 'Nope, that's where I want to go.' He called Priore that night and said that's where he wanted to go."
It's also because of his teammates and friends that Mitchell stuck at Penn, guys like Rob Milanese and Eric Bolinder and Jonathan Robinson, who all came down to visit -- and practice with -- their quarterback at his Orlando home this summer.
"I really do love a lot of these guys out there," Mitchell said. "I treat them as they want to be treated -- I treat them with the respect they deserve."
To say the feeling is mutual would almost be an understatement.
"I think the biggest asset about Mike Mitchell is that everyone loves the kid," Milanese said. "We want to win for him. When he gets in the huddle, we get pumped up."
So through it all, Mitchell has stayed. Through the less-than-desirable weather of Philly -- "How do you take this cold, man?" Mitchell griped -- and through the grueling academic demands, the Floridian has never thought about packing his bags and flying back south.
"Playing a sport and being at such an academic school, he struggles," said his mother, Debby, who has already purchased football and airline tickets for every Penn game in the next two years. "But he hangs in there."
He hangs in there for the people. And, of course, for the chance he's about to get.
Who's to say? Maybe it's enough for you. Standing on the sidelines, wearing your fancy headset and looking all important. The life of a backup quarterback can be pretty glamorous if you want it to be, save for the lack of exposure on the field.
It just wasn't for Mike Mitchell.
Mitchell, you must understand, had never sat on the bench in his entire life.
Here's a guy with such guts that he once broke his arm in a junior varsity high school football game and then returned the same game. (It was his non-throwing arm, if that makes any difference.)
Here's a guy with such competitiveness that he riled up his Colonial High School baseball teammates with a stirring pregame speech, before going four for four with two homeruns and two doubles to lead his team to victory. (Oh, by the way, that was his last ever baseball game.)
Here's a guy with such selflessness that, after throwing for 500 yards and eight touchdowns in his final football game his senior year, he could only tell the reporters about how well his offensive line played.
"He never said anything about himself," said Van, who coached his son during his Pop Warner days. "None of that primetime stuff that athletes today are about. He gives credit where credit is due. He understands the team concept."
Mitchell was such a remarkable high school athlete -- he was the best power hitter on the baseball team and the star quarterback on the football team -- that many people thought he had the potential to compete for the starting quarterback position as a freshman.
"He was a guy who felt -- and I felt too -- if Gavin hadn't transferred in, he could have been a four-year starter," said senior offensive lineman Matt Dukes, who played on the same Pop Warner team as Mitchell in seventh grade. "He was that good a player."
But in July of 1999, a month after he graduated and a month before he would come to Penn, Mitchell found out the news.
He picked up a copy of the Orlando Sentinel, and when he read of this stellar quarterback making the switch from the Big 10 to the Ivy League, his jaw nearly hit the floor.
"I was like, 'What the heck? What's going on here?' I hadn't heard anything," Mitchell said. "Coach Bagnoli calls me up a few days later and said, 'I wanted to let you know that we're having this guy here,' and I said, 'Coach, I'm a confident kid. All I want from you is a fair chance of starting. And if he beats me out, he beats me out. All I want is a shot.' He said, 'All right, you'll get your shot.'"
Mitchell squirmed in his seat a bit before adding, slowly and quietly, "But he was a better quarterback, so, you know, he started."
And so Mitchell went to the bench and waited and waited... and waited.... Do you know what it's like to backup one of the best -- not to mention one of the most durable -- quarterbacks Penn has ever seen?
Last year, Mitchell sat out the season due to personal reasons, which gives him two more years of eligibility -- two years that begin tomorrow.
"Mike hung with it and he stayed positive -- he never once complained or expressed disappointment" Penn quarterbacks coach Larry Woods said. "Now I'm so happy for him that he finally has the opportunity."
So this is the man who's going to be the leader of the Penn football team?
This country boy, who likes to hunt and fish in his spare time, and dreams of one day being the captain of his own fishing boat?
This guy, with the thick blond goatee and Southern drawl, is going to call plays in the huddle and march his team into the end zone?
You're damn right.
"He's got that southern-style, country-boy, laid-back persona, but that should not be interpreted as a lack of drive or a lack of competitiveness," Woods said. "He's as competitive as anyone on that field."
Mitchell may not have the rah-rah, locker room presence of some of the other players on the Quakers, but that doesn't mean he's not capable of being the team's leader, both on and off the field.
Mitchell has "the kind of leadership people like," Dukes said. "We don't need a guy down our throat every play. You know he's there with you. He's going to fight his butt off and he's going to try to get the job done.
"If there's a time when we're dragging and not doing our jobs, he'll definitely speak up. He knows when to speak when it's needed, but he's not overbearing."
That's something his teammates have grown to respect over the past few seasons. Another thing they have grown to respect, if not admire, is his rocket of an arm.
"He's got one of the best arms that I've ever seen on a quarterback and probably one of the best arms at Penn the past few years," Dukes said. "Just an incredible arm."
And Mitchell hopes to utilize his strong arm to take some risks and push the Quakers down the field, faster and more efficiently than they did a year ago.
Hoffman, known more for his precise throws and conservative nature on the field, is pretty much the polar opposite of Mitchell, a run-n-gun, high-octane, push-it-down-the-field-and-don't-look-back risk-taker.
Hoffman has already proved that he could dominate the Ivy League, but the Quakers' coaches and players believe that Mitchell may have what it takes to be -- gasp -- even better than his predecessor.
"You prefer to have quarterbacks playing with Mike's edge, because, more often or not, good things are going to happen," Woods said. "I'd take that quarterback 99 times out of 100."
Now it's his turn.
It's his turn to jog out onto that field, bark out commands -- maybe even funny one-liners -- to his teammates in the huddle, and lead the Quakers to yet another Ivy League title in their storied history.
It's his turn to step out of the shadows of such recent legends as Mark DeRosa, Matt Rader and Gavin Hoffman and establish himself as a Penn football deity in his own right.
It's his turn to do what he's been waiting a lifetime to do.
Do you think he's ready for it?
"I've been dreaming about that day for three years," Mitchell said. "I think every emotion in my body is going to be running through. My adrenaline will be flowing...
"That's why you play football, for those days."
Those days will now come every Saturday.Comments powered by Disqus
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